Black American Identity

Identity Development 

The research of William Cross reveals a number of stages common to many Black Americans:


  • Shaped by early development in family, neighborhood and schools.
  • Does not place a lot of emphasis on being Black.
  • Sees Black as a physical characteristic unrelated to their sense of happiness and wellbeing. (Higher salience placed on religion, social status, professions, or life style).
  • May see being Black in a negative way.


  • Stimulated by an experience or event (or a series events) that highlights the significance of race and racism.
  • Can be a positive experience, e.g., informed of historical information about the Black experience, etc.
  • The encounter leaves the individual experiencing rage at having been previously miseducated. Initially there may be alarm, confusion, and depression; guilt may set in at past naiveté.

Opposition Identity Development

  • Assimilates into the dominant group by de-emphasizing characteristics that identify themselves as subordinate group


  • Person begins to demolish old perspective and simultaneously tries to construct what will become their new frame of reference.
  • Often there is a frantic identity search as the individual is still more familiar with the old identity but is trying to transition to the new.
  • Immerses self into an Afrocentric world.
  • Becomes politically and socially active in the Black cause.
  • There is a positive association with being Black and a negative association with anything White.
  • This immersion is a strong, powerful, dominating sensation that is constantly energized by rage (at White people and culture), guilt (at having once been tricked into thinking Negro ideas), and a developing sense of pride (in one’s Black self, in Black people, and in Black culture.)


  • Begin to demonstrate more serious understanding of Black issues.
  • Regains control of emotions and intellect.
  • Levels off the intense emotions.


  • Marks stage where a new identity is incorporated.
  • Person feels more relaxed, calmer, and more at ease with self.
  • An inner peace is achieved.
  • No longer has the uncontrolled rage towards Whites. Shift to controlled anger at oppressive systems and racist institutions.
  • Shift from symbolic, boisterous rhetoric to serious analysis and quiet strength.
  • Shift from anxious, insecure, rigid pseudo Blackness based on the hatred of Whites to proactive Black pride, self-love, and a deep sense of connection to, and acceptance by, the Black community.
  • Secure in his/her Blackness and open to new experiences.


  • Sustained long-term commitment to activity in Black issues.

These stages are also described here and summed up well in this interview with Dr. Chap in Recording and Resources: Understanding Racial-Ethnic Identity Development:

“I’m going to talk through William Cross’s African-American/Black identity model as one of the early models that were created for racial-ethnic identity development. I’m going to use his as a foundation because many of the other ethnic and racial models were using Cross’s work as an early foundation. So it’s a good place for us to start. I’ll spend a lot of time talking about this one, and then we’ll go through some of the other nuances of the other models. And then I’m going to spend some time talking through the white identity model as a distinctly different model than the models for people of color.

So William Cross talked about those early stages for a person of color being the pre-encounter.

This is the time when even a person of color or Black person might say, I don’t see myself as a racial being. I’m just human. I don’t think that race matters. Race is not why some people have opportunities and others don’t. So that’s that early stage. And that could be an adult. This could be a teenager who has a colorblind ideology or a colorblind thought like race doesn’t matter, I’m just a human being.

Oftentimes it’s a child who just doesn’t have the language to describe themselves as having a racial identity or ideology. With multiple experiences with race — bumping into race, I like to say — there’s this moment where a person says, “Wait a minute. Race seems to be a constant factor that’s impacting my life.” Not the only, but certainly it’s present. Because there’s also gender and social economic differences and sexual orientation and gender identity, so lots of other identities may be informing a person’s experience but at some point, a Black person, an African-American person may realize, race does have an impact in my life. I’ve had enough encounters with race and racism to realize that I need to make sense of what that is for me. And that’s where the need to bond with people who identify in the same way that you are. This could be your adolescent in middle school actually pre-adolescent or an adolescent who is really seeking friendships of people who are within the same racial group.

But this could also be an adult who has been surrounded by perhaps white communities or white school systems and is trying to make sense of what does it mean for me to be a black person, what does it mean for me to be African-American?

Those multiple encounters then lead to like I said the bonding, the need to immerse. That’s sort of that first one. Immerse oneself in Black culture, African-American literature, history classes, cultural events — really getting a deep dive into what does this mean to be African-American? What does it mean to be black? How do I make sense of that? That immersion is something that we’re going to come back to after we get to the end of the model because it’s actually an important part of development that is often missed and misunderstood.

But after first it has felt like they’ve had sufficient — whatever sufficient means for that individual — exploring who it is that they are in the moment, they’re ready for emersion out of that and get into sort of more collaborative conversations diverse groups. Perhaps they’re ready to learn about different ethnic-racial groups, engage in diversity conversations, take part in initiatives that are going to meet the needs of larger groups of people not just the black community, for example. Because they have that sense of I know what I need and they know what I want and I know who I am. And from that vantage point I’m really ready to dig in to authentic conversations and authentic relationships with people who are different than I am.

Then you get to the stage where the person feels very committed, not only to who they are — that’s the empowered self, but now they’re also committed to their community. Now they’re very invested in trying to figure out, how do I help those that helped me? How do I give back to my community?

So this is sort of a general flow of the racial model for African-American/black people.

What happens is, as we encounter other moments in our life where there’s a racialized moment, a racial micro-aggression, some racialized experience, we now have some perspective. Maybe it’s a moment where you need to reconnect with people from your group. Maybe it’s a moment where you just have to re-evaluate, “You know what I’m good. I understand myself, I know who I am. This is racism at play, not something I have to internalize.” And you can find strategies to help the person who made that comment or was the source of the stress, or just find ways of moving away from the situation because you realize, I’m not going to change that situation in the moment. I need to continue to do self-care.

So these encounter moments, one will always have them. They happen on a regular basis for some of us. And it’s now this new vantage point. The one thing that you won’t ever return to is the pre-encounter. Right. Because once you’ve become aware of racism there’s no shutting that down. It just exists.”


Video Resources 

You will find many of these stages reflected in the experiences shared in the following videos.

A Conversation About Growing Up Black, from The New York Times:

A Conversation With Black Women on Race, from The New York Times:

Let Her Learn: Join the Fight to Stop School Pushout, from The National Women’s Law Center:

How to Deal with the Police | Parents Explain, from WatchCut Video:

No Country for Me, from The Root:

The First Time I Realized I Was Black, from CNN:

Other Resources


Being Carefree, Black, & Beautiful Is an Effective Form of Protest in America, from Allure

Report Reflects on the Status of Black Women in the U.S., from Teen Vogue

Why Juneteenth Must Be Celebrated, from The Atlantic 

Websites and Pages 

AFROPUNK: AFROPUNK is an influential community of young, gifted people of all backgrounds who speak through music, art, film, comedy, fashion and more. Originating with the 2003 documentary that highlighted a Black presence in the American punk scene, it is a platform for the alternative and experimental. Remaining at the core of its mission are the punk principles of DIY aesthetics, radical thought and social non-conformity. AFROPUNK is a voice for the unwritten, unwelcome and unheard-of.

Black Lives Matter: Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and transand disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.

For HarrietFor Harriet is an blog community for women of African ancestry. We aspire to educate, inspire, and entertain.

The Black Youth Project: The Black Youth Project examines the attitudes, resources and culture of the young black millennials.

The Positive Black Images They Never Show YouOur purpose is building a positive self image, empowerment, self improvement, and self economic empowerment of the black community. Furthermore, our goal is empowering the black community to change their circumstances by changing their attitudes, thoughts and beliefs about themselves. This group identifies and profiles people in the Black community that we can all look up to and draw inspiration from. We have had enough of the negative images of black people in the media that continue to perpetuate stereotypes created long before we were born. It’s time for a change. It’s time to eradicate these myths.

The RootThe Root is the premier news, opinion and culture site for African-American influencers.  Founded in 2008, under the leadership of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Root provides smart, timely coverage of breaking news, thought-provoking commentary and gives voice to a changing, more diverse America.


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